A particularly easy question for a fourth-grade social studies test would be to ask who won the 2020 presidential election. “Joe Biden,” the kids would answer, without batting an eyelash. Because, you see, Joe Biden did win the 2020 presidential election, by earning more votes in enough states to secure a victory among members of the electoral college.
Were there a particularly precocious fourth-grader, perhaps one whose parents like to participate in boat parades, that student might wonder whether we could have confidence that Biden actually won. The teacher would have an easy response: There has been no election in U.S. history that has sustained as much scrutiny as the one in 2020. For 30 months, people have tried to find evidence that something untoward happened, without success. But the odds that this question would even arise are slim; the obviousness of the 2020 results speaks for itself.
Pose that question to the head of the Republican National Committee and her odds of passing the test would drop precipitously.
On Wednesday, CNN teased an upcoming interview between host Chris Wallace and Ronna McDaniel, the aforementioned chair of the RNC. In the clip, Wallace asks McDaniel when she stopped being an “election denier” — that is, someone who espouses skepticism about the validity of the election results. And, surprise! McDaniel never stopped.
“I think saying that there were problems with 2020 is very real. I don’t think that’s election denying,” McDaniel told Wallace. “I’m from Wayne County. We had a woman send a note saying I’m being told to backdate ballots. We had to look into that. That’s deeply concerning. When you have friends who are poll-watching and being kicked out, that’s deeply concerning. We have every right to look at that.”
McDaniel is trying to rationalize skepticism but actually ends up kneecapping herself. Sure, if someone says that ballots were backdated or that they were barred from observing vote counting, check it out. People did. And then they determined that these things were neither nefarious nor significant to the election outcome.
The examples McDaniel raises are step one of a two-part process, the second part of which is evaluation. Once the examples are dismissed, the process should improve confidence in the results. But McDaniel uses them, instead, as reasons to doubt the result almost three years later.
Wallace pressed her: Was she saying she had questions about the result? McDaniel offered that “Joe Biden is the president” deferral that many on the right for some reason decided was a clever middle ground between angering their base (by admitting Biden won) and angering the rest of the world (by espousing nonsense about the election results).
Eventually, McDaniel gave the answer that would get her a passing mark on that fourth-grade test. And then qualified it.
“I think there were lots of problems with 2020. Ultimately he won the election, but there were lots of problems with the 2020 election,” she said. “I don’t think he won it fair. I don’t. I’m not going to say that.”
This is where a lot of Republicans have landed. All of that hunting for fraud has resulted in a tacit admission that there isn’t demonstrable evidence of explicit fraud, so, disinterested in accepting the easy answer — Biden got more votes than the deeply unpopular and polarizing incumbent, Donald Trump — they invent nebulous excuses for the loss. It was Hunter Biden’s laptop! It was the media! It was Mark Zuckerberg! This argument is great for skeptics because it just vaguely blames the people they already hate for making Trump lose without having to actually offer hard evidence of it.
We see that in polling. CNN has consistently asked Americans whether Biden won legitimately in 2020 or not. Over time, about two-thirds of Republicans have consistently said he didn’t. The percentage who say there’s solid evidence that Biden didn’t win has dropped as the lack of such evidence has become increasingly apparent — but Republicans then just transition to a McDaniel-esque I suspect he didn’t win legitimately.
And why wouldn’t they? Here’s Ronna McDaniel saying he didn’t.
This is self-reinforcing in the way that so much in the Trump era has been self-reinforcing. McDaniel won’t say Biden was legitimately elected because the base doesn’t want to hear it — but the base doesn’t want to hear it in part because leaders such as McDaniel won’t simply admit without qualifications that Biden won.
Plus Trump, of course. McDaniel and other Republicans have very little incentive to admit the truth about the election in part because the guy who’s easily front-running the 2024 Republican presidential nominating contest would have a conniption if they were to do so. Sure, reality is reality and it’s generally nice to coexist with it. But Trump offers an ongoing and explicit disincentive to say things other than “Joe Biden is the president.”
For McDaniel, there’s an overlapping incentive. If Biden won in 2020 because of the anti-Trump vibes, it means that the right didn’t do anything to make that loss happen. It means, in other words, that the Republican Party’s efforts to get Trump elected were stymied not by ineptitude but by external malfeasance, electoral poltergeists. And therefore it means that McDaniel did her job as well as she could. Not my fault Trump lost! It’s the blob’s fault.
External observers won’t have much difficulty seeing the problem here, of course. Establishing a system in which any loss can easily be framed as illegitimate means establishing a system in which no loss is accepted as valid. It means institutionalizing the idea that elections are inaccurate gauges of public opinion and, therefore, that the winners of those elections have no mandate to serve.
Then you get a bunch of Trump supporters flooding into the Capitol. But no worries on that front. Turns out, that riot was not the right’s fault either.
Losing elections is hard, as McDaniel should have learned by now. Speaking the truth, it seems, can be harder.